A lot of artists work as freelancers, meaning we aren't employed in a 9 to 5 job, instead we look for contracts online and through in-person meetings, and often do short term sessions, working perhaps a week or a month on a specific project, then moving on. This is particularly the case in the VFX industry, and even many concept artists, painters and animators end up doing this type of work. But this in turn means you need to go through a lot of job postings, offering you all kinds of opportunities. If you aren't an industry veteran, you may not know what constitute a good project for you to get in. Here are some signs that may indicate you should be suspicious of a freelance opportunity.
The first thing to look at is the pay. With globalization, we've seen a lot of people expecting work to be done for a lower budget. In some cases, that's realistic, since the price of computers, software and tools have gone down, but at the end of the day you should get the type of income that you think you're worth. This can be a problem when dealing over the Internet, especially for remote contracts, where you don't need to be on site.
For example, a typical 3D modeler in the US may charge around $800 to make a custom model, then UV map it and rig it. This would be a job that takes a couple of days at the most. However, as countries like India and China become more tech savvy, modelers over there may offer to do the same thing for just $100. That's a huge cost saving, and may mean you don't get that job. The quality may be lower, obviously, but not all clients realize that, or even care. So the question often becomes whether or not you're willing to lower your rate, sometimes significantly, just to get work. If you're just out of college, then it may be worth it just for the work experience. Otherwise, then you may want to pass on that opportunity.
While low pay is an obvious red flag, there are other signs to look for as well. A lot of postings you find online will offer other types of remuneration, such as equity in the company, a percentage of profits, or my favorite of all, 'exposure'. All of these should be avoided, unless you really need the experience. No serious client offers these types of incentives. Even when you get paid, you get your exposure, so that's not a valid remuneration. This is just a cheap way to say that they are not willing to pay for your work. This may be fine with you, especially if it's an amateur project, but more often than not you may be better off looking elsewhere.
An interesting requirement you may see in some work offers is to have your own work equipment. The post may say something like 'You must have your own software and hardware'
, then list exactly which applications they want you to have. Unless the posting is for an off-site job, where you work from your own home, this is also a red flag because it means they most likely aren't a professional outfit, it's most likely a one time deal, so the chance that you will get paid may be lower. The same is true if they talk about overtime in the ad. If they mention that word, chances are that they mean they expect you to do unpaid overtime, so make sure you clarify exactly the amount of time they expect you to work on this.
One sneaky way some companies use to get work for free is to ask for unique samples. This is especially true with writers, but has also been seen in other art fields. If a work offer asks you to send a brand new, unique sample, and then describes exactly what the sample should be, then that's no longer a sample, it's asking you to do free work. Some sites also use contests, where the prize of this contest is the privilege of having your work used by them, for commercial gains. Again, if you have some free time, and you believe that the exposure it will bring you is worth that time, then go ahead. Otherwise, that company should be fine with past samples you can provide them.
Vagueness in a job opportunity is also something that should concern you. Often, clients have no concept of the amount of work that will really be needed to do the job they want done. Asking a VFX artist to do 15 to 20 shots in a day is, in most cases, a large amount of work. But someone who only thinks about the shots, each being just a few minutes long, may not realize that. Make sure you know exactly what you're getting into.
Finally, make sure to get everything in writing, or at least by email, so that there is no confusion as to what the job is, how much time you should be spending on it, and what your remuneration will be. If a client refuses to write exact terms down, and instead insists on telling you through Skype or IM, then walk away. At the end of the day, almost every freelancer will get some bad deals at some point in their career, either a client that doesn't pay, or a project that ends up being much more difficult than initially expected. But by following strict guidelines, you can make sure to minimize the risk.